New Delhi: The killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the lackluster, pedantic idealogue of Al-Qaeda, brings a strange closure to the US “War on Terror”, which started with 9/11. Egyptian born al-Zawahiri, was known to be a confidant of Saudi Osama bin Laden, who was America’s Public enemy number one, until he was found and killed in Pakistan’s Abbottabad, over 10 years ago.
The world had all but forgotten about al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda. Once the primary global Islamic terrorist organisation, al-Qaeda had become a footnote with more deadly organisations such as the ISIS taking its place. Islamic terrorism has also evolved extensively since Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri masterminded the attacks on 9/11. Al-Zawahiri neither had the finances nor the sophistication to upgrade to terrorism 4.0.
Al-Zawahiri’s death closes a much-forgotten chapter, but its timing, significance and collateral results open uncomfortable questions. Since the killing of Osama bin Laden, by the Obama administration (where Biden served as the Vice President), al-Zawahiri’s role and importance has been downgraded by analysts. After bin Laden’s death, since al-Zawahiri was proclaimed the leader, no significant attack on the West was attributed to the Al-Qaeda.
After hurriedly abandoning Afghanistan less than a year ago, the Biden administration has steered clear of South Asia allowing China and Russia to increase their influence in Pakistan and Afghanistan. South Asia is literally in flames, Myanmar is being ruled by a pro-China military junta which executes democracy activists arbitrarily. Taliban controls Afghanistan, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan(TTP) is at war with the Pakistani establishment despite Pakistan’s close relationship with the Afghan Taliban and the ISI’s control over the Haqqani network. Both Pakistan and Sri Lanka are facing economic disasters unparalleled in modern history.
At the point where Nancy Pelosi stops over in Taipei, almost as a distraction, the Biden administration authorises a drone strike to kill the most famous face in the US after Osama bin Laden, even if he was probably never as relevant or important to the “War on Terror”.
Indian analysts point at a quid-pro-quo between the Sharif government with the tacit support of Pakistani army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Pakistan needs US support for the latest IMF installment to avoid economic default. Other analysts point out to young Mullah Yakoub, Taliban’s defence minister, son of Taliban founder Mullah Omar, as the source that started the domino during his trip to Doha which ended in Al-Zawahiri’s killing.
Whatever the source of the intelligence was, all aspects of this “delivery of justice” are equally alarming. The media distraction with the news of al-Zawahiri’s death draws attention away from the Ukraine war which has dominated the headlines since Russia’s attack on Ukraine in February. This is quickly followed by Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei, which has already raised tensions with China and caused the markets to plummet on the fears of a US-China conflict. The US administrations deliberate attempt at changing the news narrative so shortly after Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s call with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov may indicate that the Biden White House preparing to slowly extricate itself from the Ukrainian disaster, especially after losing key allies in France, Italy and the United Kingdom.
Facing a mid-term election in November, Speaker Pelosi’s move of visiting Taipei is bold and maybe slightly desperate. This is Nancy Pelosi’s arguably last international act in office after a long career in public service. A loss in the midterms for the democrats would mean Biden would be a lame duck President for the rest of his term. It would also mean traditionally that a Republican congress would force the White House to recalibrate priorities.
Al-Zawahiri’s killing finally formalises the farce that the Doha accords were. Here was Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command, living in a luxurious Kabul neighborhood, in a building owned by the Haqqani’s who control key positions in the Taliban caretaker government. While the Taliban has reneged on almost every clause of the Doha agreement, al-Zawahiri’s discovery in Kabul now allows the US formally to put aside the Doha accords.
The killing also pushes the Haqqani network, one of the two main partners of the current Afghan Taliban organisation, to a corner. Traditionally, by Pashtunwali, the Pashtun honour code, the killing of an honoured guest like al-Zawahiri, cannot go unavenged. Any reprisal by the Haqqani’s will put their Pakistani sponsors into a very tight spot with the Americans. The Pakistani establishment is going an extra mile to curry favour with the Americans given their need for financial support to fix the economic meltdown left behind by former Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Al-Zawahiri’s killing comes at a delicate point for Pakistan. Apart from its disastrous economic situation, the Afghan Taliban brokered talks with the TTP have ended in a stalemate, creating a dangerous security situation internally in Pakistan. With several homegrown anti-India, Islamic extremist terror groups resident in the country, the secular Pakistani army now finds itself surrounded by enemies inside and out.
Despite Indian security agencies having a “told you so” moment, both countries are now increasingly worried about the deteriorating security situation in Pakistan, which will spill over into India as well. Rumours about the Pakistani civilian government’s assistance in the killing of a devout mujahid and idealogue like al-Zawahiri will worsen the situation in Pakistan. Secretary Blinken’s statement has been rather vague about the allies who assisted, leaving ample room to point fingers at the Shehbaz Sharif government.
If miraculously Pakistan’s involvement were to be cleared, the other option is to blame Mullah Yakoub and the Loy Kandahar faction of the Taliban. This would almost certainly lead to a civil war in Afghanistan, which will plummet the country to disastrous lows never seen before. Though tough to believe, al-Zawahiri could have been a gift from Russian intelligence to the Americans as the Blinken-Lavrov call may have opened channels of communication and cooperation and this would be considered a goodwill gesture.
Whatever the source of the information, al-Zawahiri’s death will cause an upheaval in the Al-Qaeda with a new leadership being installed and this will have definite repercussions. A weak and fractious White House with a clear lack of direction and courage of conviction with an ageing confused President at the helm is the world’s nightmare in such dangerous times. Instead of celebrating the closure of the 9/11 trauma and chapter, with the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri Biden opens the pandora’s box which was better left shut.